Exploring distant galaxies in the Milky Way

By Gary Zientara
For The Taos News
Posted 4/25/19

The large reddish blob you see in the center of this image is M86 (the 86th object in Charles Messier's famous list of deep space objects). It is one of the largest in the Virgo Super Cluster of …

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Exploring distant galaxies in the Milky Way

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The large reddish blob you see in the center of this image is M86 (the 86th object in Charles Messier's famous list of deep space objects). It is one of the largest in the Virgo Super Cluster of galaxies of which our own Milky Way is a member. M86 is either designated as a lenticular or elliptical galaxy. Its red appearance is due to mostly to older stars which sport cooler surface temperatures as they approach old age.

Look closely at the halo around M86 and you'll see a small fuzzy star-shaped object to the right of the bright center of this galaxy. This is a satellite galaxy orbiting around M86 similar to the way planets orbit the sun. There are also many smaller fuzzy red blobs embedded in the hazy cloud of at least 500 billion stars in this huge galaxy. The red blobs are globular clusters, sort of spherical beehives of thousands of stars held in a globular mass by mutual gravitational attraction. M86 has at least 3,800 globular clusters in random orbits around it. In comparison, our Milky Way has a bit over 150 globulars.

At super-large scales of hundreds of millions of light years, our universe manifests itself as a fibrous web structure made up of billions of galaxies. What you see here is just a tiny snippet of one of the web's filaments called Markarian's Chain. The rest of Markarian's Chain of galaxies extends mostly to the left outside the field of view of this image. The chain was named after astrophysicist Benjamin Markarian who discovered a common direction of motion of these galaxies in the 1960s. Speaking of motion, M86 is one of the few distant galaxies that is "blue shifted," meaning it is coming at us at a fast rate of 244 kilometers per second. Not to worry, because M86 is about 53 million light years from Earth, so we needn't worry about a collision any time soon.

The rest of the numbered galaxies (except IC3355) in this image are classified in the New General Catalog (NGC). They range in distance from about 45 million light years to NGC4438 to about 55 million light years to M84. The dim fuzzy smudge above the Index Catalog number IC3355 is actually the closest galaxy to us in this image. It is a dwarf galaxy "only" 7.5 million light years from Earth. One of the most interestingly shaped galaxies in this image is NGC 4438, which is a galaxy whose spiral arms are being distorted (see greenish-blue gossamer arms curved downward) by the enormous lenticular galaxy M86.

This galaxy cluster marks the beginning of Markarian's Chain of galaxies. It is found near the star Denebola (de-NEB-oh-la), which marks the tip of the king of the jungle cat's tail in the constellation Leo the Lion. Virtually all the individual stars you see here are foreground stars found in our Milky Way galaxy.

For a list of astronomical events for the rest of April and May, visit mountsangreobservatory.com.

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